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Mahler - Last of the Romantic Symphonists

Joseph Braunstein

"Mahler's Fifth Symphony signifies a critical point in his stylistic development, and the crystalization of his concept of the symphony as an artistic category."

The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979


Symphonies No. 5 and 10 (Adagio)
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Conductor (No. 10)
Kirill Kondrashin, Conductor (No. 5)

Nearly everything you wanted to know about Mahler and the 5th symphony, including what he liked for breakfast. And you'll need to ask yourself, what DO the Russians have to do with Mahler? PS the author attended the premiere of Mahler's 9th Symphony.

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Mahler's Fifth Symphony signifies a critical point in his stylistic development, and the crystalization of his concept of the symphony as an artistic category. His first symphonic creations grew out of his songs which were in the most cases conceived as lieder with orchestral accompaniment. Thus at the beginning there was the lied which begot the symphonic idea. The first symphony in D major (1884-88) evolved from the cycle Songs of a Wayfarer (1883-1885) of which three poems were penned by Mahler himself. He was strongly attracted to the famous German anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) compiled by Achim von Arnim (1781-1831) and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), from German poems, folksongs and carols of nearly three centuries.

The integration of songs based on poems from this anthology into the symphonic framework affected the style and spiritual contents of Mahler's second, third and fourth symphonies. The use of this thematic material occured either in the original form (as a song), or in very extended symphonic movements. Thus two lieder went into the second symphony, two into the third and one became the finale of the fourth. The integration of this material from the Wunderhorn songs and their spiritual impact on the pertinent symphonies, justify the application of the term "wunderhorn symphonies" to this symphonic trilogy each of which makes use of the human voice. The appearance of the purely instrumental Fifth Symphony startled the musical world.

Composed 1901-02 and first performed on October 18, 1904, in Cologne, the symphony was heard in Vienna on December 7, 1905, led by the composer in the concerts of the venerable Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music). It should be remembered that Mahler occupied then the most prestigious post of the director of the Court Opera in Vienna. The present writer, then a young teen-ager, distinctly remembers the reviews in newspapers and a magazine which stressed Mahler's return to the purely instrumental symphony. Nonethe­less the Fifth follows the preceding sisterworks in several respects; in the very expanded architectural design--the total number of measures amounting to nearly 2800--in the large instrumental apparatus with a substantial percussion section, in the weight of the finale and last but not least in the typical Austrian character. As for the orchestration Mahler held a reading-rehearsal of the symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, to which his wife, Alma Marie, listened unseen from the gallery. She recounts the following: "I had heard each theme in my head while copying the score, but now I could not hear them at all! Mahler had overscored the percussion instruments and kettle-drums so madly and persistently that little beyond the rhythm was recognizable. I hurried home sobbing aloud. He followed. For a long time I refused to speak. At last I said between my sobs: 'You've written for percussion and nothing else!' He laughed and then produced the score. He crossed out all the kettledrums in red chalk, and half the percussion instru­ments too. He had felt the same thing himself, but my passionate protest turned the scale.'' Proceeding from practical exper­iences gained at performances, Mahler did revise the orchestration over and over again until 1910. As for the design of the symphony Mahler devised a three-part division, indicated by Roman numerals and assigned two portions (Nos. 1 and 2) to the first division (I), No. 3 (Scherzo) to the second (II) and Nos. 4 (Adagietto) and 5 (Rondo-Finale) to the third (III). Yet this tripartite organization seems to have been devised for practical considera­tions in order to gain a longer rest after the first division (about 900 measures). The pause should benefit the over-taxed wind players.

Mahler's symphonic forebearers were Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Bruckner. He himself was a staunch believer in the "eternal law" of the sonata-form which he modified in several respects, however. In the free treatment and expansion of the classical pattern he demonstrated a truly romantic gesture, and at the same time wrote the final chapter of the history of the romantic symphony. He never threw the sonata design overboard and in his sixth symphony he even called for the repetition of the exposition of the first movement.

The significant modification of the sonata-pattern (four-movement design) occurs in the first movement of the fifth symphony. It commences with a Trauer­marsch (Funeral March) which is thematic­ally connected with the following stormy music ("with greatest vehemence") labelled No. 2. Yet Nos. 1 and 2 form one complex so that the traditional four-movement scheme is still present. Mahler may have found a precedent in Beethoven's Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 in which the opening fugue and the ensuing D major Allegro form one unit. Note that Mahler's symphony also begins in C sharp minor and it is worth mentioning that he performed Beethoven's quartet orchestrally.

The funeral music in the Fifth was not a novelty in Mahler's symphonic output. He had inserted a funeral march in the first symphony (third movement) and the first movement of the second symphony bears the heading Totenfeier (Solemn Obsequies). There is also the mourning rhythms and tunes are rooted in childhood memories and constitute an important element in his creative work. Its apotheosis can be seen in the first movement of the Third Symphony which represents the artistic transfiguration of the Burgmusik which accompanied the changing of the guard assigned to the imperial palace (Burg). Mahler had witnessed this popular spectacle in his student years and later on.

Recalling that Mahler had praised the "heavenly joys" in the last movement of the Fourth Symphony the audiences at the first performances of the Fifth Symphony were bewildered even terrified by the passionate utterances and violent outbreaks injected into the sadness of the funeral music. This writer had a similar experience seven years later in 1912 at the first hearing of the Ninth Symphony. The language spoken in the first three movements we did not expect after Das Lied von der Erde.

In Beethoven's symphonic output begin­ning with the Eroica two basic types can be discerned: a dramatic type, represented in Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 9, and a more lyric-epical category which appears in Nos. 4, 6 and 8. This dichotomy cannot be found in the symphonic oeuvre of Mahler, the Fourth Symphony notwithstanding which forms a postlude to Nos. 2 and 3. There is always a struggle in Mahler's symphonies. It is a fight for inner peace and Mahler's friend Guido Adler spoke of "the artist's striving for redemption from grief." The application of the word ''redemption'' is of particular interest because it calls to mind the importance of the '' redemption motif'' in the music drama of Richard Wagner from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal. In the strife for redemption (inner peace) the symphonies of Mahler parallel the creations of Wagner whom he deeply revered.

Beethoven's funeral music in the Eroica represents an episode in the symphonic events while the funeral march in Mahler's Fifth is a point of departure and the destination is uncertain. The "stage direction" reading "Wie ein Kondukt" refers in the Austrian parlance to a funeral procession. Mahler used it again in the opening movement of the Ninth Symphony. The military signals definitely establish the mood of the events to be unfolded. In the Second Symphony the developments led from the solemnity of the Obsequies to the Resurrection (in the finale). The triumphant chorale in D major, intoned by the trumpets (4), horns (4) and trombones in the second part (No. 2) seems to indicate a similar solution of the serious crisis or the "redemption" to use Adler's word.

Yet the subsequent development denies this. The strength ebbs, the thematic material withers away in a manner similar to that found in the coda of the marcia funebre of Beethoven's Eroica, and the movement dies away in A minor. Yet the outcome of this symphonic drama is forecast in the ensuing Scherzo.

The Scherzo, in which a corno obbligato is prominently employed is a movement of vast architectural proportions. It runs 800 and odd measures. This is not a scherzo according to textbook with the precisely indicated separation of scherzo proper and trio. It is an immense symphonic movement revealing several characteristic pictures and scenes that are kept in motion by an elaboration of the numerous musical ideas and motifs. These stem either from the Iindler of the peasants of the Austrian alpine regions or from the rhythmically piquant waltz. There are no moments of uneasiness and anxiety and there are no emotional conflicts which would generate tension.

Merriment and serenity dominate the Scherzo, but even here a melancholy tune appears in the Trio. Assuming importance the joyful and the sad are combined with the laendler in contrapuntal juxtaposition in the recapitulation of the Scherzo, which is interrupted by an episode alluding to the Trio. Tidal waves of sound are produced by the entire orchestra playing as loudly as possible in this vigorous Scherzo, which conveys enormous vitality.

The Adagietto appears as a study of contrast. The entire wind section and percussion instruments are silenced, only the strings and the harps being used. The term Adagietto refers only to the dimension and slow tempo of the movement. Obviously Mahler felt that a broadly structured slow movement would not be effective after the length of the preceding movements. Thus the Adagietto functions as a lyrical interlude and also as a thematically generating power, since it furnishes musical ideas for the finale. It is said that the avant-garde musicians of 1905 and later, were somewhat disturbed by the appealing lyricism of the Adagietto for which Mahler drew ideas from the second of the Kindertotenlieder and the song "lch bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.''

The Rondo-Finale matches the opening movement (Nos. 1 and 2) in its length of nearly 800 measures. It begins with a partial table of contents with references to various musical ideas used in the main body. The movement shows Mahler at the peak of his craftsmanship. In the combination of sonata and rondo, and the application of fugal and variation technique, the finale revives classical traditions. There are four principal ideas to which the melody with the characteristic falling seventh drawn from the Adagietto is joined.

THE "OTHER" GREAT 5TH SYMPHONY: Mahler's Fifth Symphony has become, throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, a work on par - in popularity - with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The use of the "Adagietto" as a memorial piece and as a movie "theme" while also never losing its emotional power in performance (essentially we haven't burnt out on the work) has crossed it over to mainstream audiences more than any work, except perhaps Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

This recording can be found in about 10 different ways on the streaming services - it was originally licensed to MHS from Melodiya, the Russian state owned record label. In the past 30 years, Melodiya has licensed to just about anyone who walked in the door with cash, so there's multiple versions of the same recording.

Here's the Kondrashin conducted version of Mahler's 5th Symphony reviewed in Issue 236:

The Adagio from the 10th with Rostedvensky doesn't seem to have been reissued legally, so here's a performance you can watch:

WHERE TO START, WHERE TO START: So what else can the concierge do - it's a huge task to guide you to more recordings that you might like. There's far too many, like Beethoven's 5th, it's become a conductor and orchestral showcase - we'd use the rest of the internet space describing the recordings available. But we promised to show you the way and we'll do a bit of that.

MIDDLE THINGS FIRST: if you want to jump right in, then start with the Adagietto, the third movement of the work and the emotional heart. Some claim it was written as a love letter to his wife, Alma, it's also become associated with powerful, overwhelming musical moments, mostly associated with grief.

Leonard Bernstein was instrumental in bringing this piece (and Mahler in general) to the forefront of American audiences, in concert, and in his lectures.

SOMETHING TO LISTEN TO: As for choosing a recording, well...there are as many great recordings as there are great conductors, and even a few not so great conductors got lucky with this work. There's online polls, and some highly subjective articles which are not bad places for serious reflection. Or try this beginner's guide.

Here's a few of about a hundred recommendations (just click on the image and you'll get a page showing you how to stream, or even purchase a download or a CD).

Mahler's 10th - here's how you can listen to this work. There are a few performances of the entire work as it was re-worked by Derick Cooke.

Watch and Learn: Since we focused on Bernstein for the Adagietto of the 5th Symphony, we're going back to him and his take on the Adagio of the 10th Symphony.

The traditional formal design of exposi­tion, development, recapitualtion and coda is strictly observed. As in the Scherzo there are no recurrences of expression of vehemence, grief or sorrow. Optimism and joy are dominant. The melodies are simple and diatonic and in spite of the contrapuntal texture the picture remains always clear. The climax of the movement is reached with the appearance of the chorale tune heard in the first movement. Bekker called it Leben­shymne (Hymn of Life).

After Mahler's death on May 18, 1911, it had become known that he had left a symphony (No. 9), a symphonic song cycle (Das Lied von der Erde) and sketches to a tenth symphony behind. Bruno Walter, Mahler's foremost interpreter, lost no time to bring Mahler's artistic legacy before the public. The interest in Mahler, the creator, had grown considerably after the triumphant reception of the Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910. Walter presented Das Lied von der Erde on November 20, 1911, in Munich and conducted the first performance of the Ninth Symphony on June 26, 1912, in Vienna. The undersigned attended this event.

Several important musicians and writers were given the opportunity by the com­poser's widow, Alma Maria, to see the sketches for the Tenth Symphony. Among them were Arnold Schonberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Mahler's biographer Richard Spect, and Paul Bekker, the author of the first important book on Mahler's symphonic oeuvre. Discussing briefly the overall design of the projected symphony, Bekker mention­ed the interspersion of diary-like entries of highly personal character which he refused to quote fully because of their intimate personal quality. "This score will never sound," declared Bekker. He lived long enough--he died in 1936 in New York--to see his forecast partially refuted. Yet thereby hangs a tale.

Mahler used to begin the compositional process in a three or four stave particel/ (short score), and continued (in the second stage) in a draft score before he wrote out the fair copy for the printer. Out of the five projected movements for the Tenth Sym­phony only one exists in a draft score, namely a long Adagio of 275 measures in F sharp, which was to open the symphony. Of the third movement, bearing the heading "Purgatorio," and being of an astonishing brevity (170 measures in 2/4), only 30 measures are worked out in a draft score while the rest exists in a short score--the remaining three movements are also only in a short score. Nonetheless Mahler's widow, a professionally trained musician and composer, thought that the Adagio and "Purgatorio" could be edited for perfor­mance purposes, provided a musician would be bold enough to undertake this difficult task. For the "Purgatorio" he had to supply the texture and orchestral setting for 140 measures i.e. for about four fifths of the entire movement. Ernst Krenek (born 1900) who became Alma Maria Mahler's son in law in 1922 tackled the difficult job, counselled by Alban Berg and Franz Schalk who was to conduct the first performance of the fragmentary symphony in a music festival sponsored by the City of Vienna. This writer had the privilege of playing as a violist in this performance (October 24, 1924). There are several very exposed solo viola passages and in one rehearsal we had to play a passage a stand at a time. This was a severe test in view of Schalk's propensity for irony and sarcasm .... The city of Vienna issued a facsimile edition of 1000 copies of the entire sketch material. Bruno Walter rejected the publication of this material which, however, benefitted scholarship. Hans Ferdinand Redlich has pointed out that this edition enabled the student to watch Mahler's titantic struggle with recalcitrant thematic material with terrifying Danteesque visions in the last year of his ebbing life.

After the two movements were heard in Vienna it became evident that this presentation was not to be an isolated event. A practical edition of the unfinished Tenth Symphony became necessary. This task was assigned to Otto Joki, a composer who studied with Berg, and who eventually settled in New York. The score of the Adagio as Mahler left it was made accessible by the international Gustav Mahler Society, pre­pared by Erwin Ratz. It is this score and the facsimile edition of the original manuscript which this writer consulted for this essay.

A few remarks may be offered first about the "Purgatorio" before dealing with the Adagio. As one of the three scherzo-like movements originally planned, it is a far-cry from the very extended scherzi we encounter in Mahler's symphonic framework. Yet it is in this movement into which Mahler injected exclamations such as "Have mercy! 0 Lord! Why hast Thou forsaken me? Thy will be emotional, not a cognitive, language and assume that it somehow embodies some philosophy or, at the very least, some story. A symphony (the fifth) that begins with a funeral march is very tempting in this regard. Mahler himself did not believe in representational music and detested the attempts by critics to derive "plots" from his works. But that did not stop them. One annotator is sure that the fifth symphony is all about an artist who, having failed to live up to his expectations, is about to chuck his career until he is revitalized by "the harmless play of life and nature" and so ascends to Everest-ian heights of creativity undreamt of by the human mind, Excelsior! Another offers the following schema: 1. Mourning and pain 2. Fighting and wounds 3. Irony, shadowy insecurity, and forced gaiety 4. Interlude(!) 5. Daily work and haste (! !) In Mahler's own time he had an admirer, a Herr Nodnagel, who insisted on working out detailed programmes for the symphon­ies; that for the Fifth took 23 printed pages, and you could buy it for 30 pfennigs. It turned Mahler magenta with rage.

The fifth symphony was written (like most of his music) when Mahler was on his summer vacation--specifically in Carinthia (Karnten) in South Austria--escaping from the backbreaking demands of his job as director of the Imperial Opera. (He later conducted the German repertoire at the Met, and was, from 1909 to 1911, conductor of the New York Philharmonic.) This vacation was 1902 and he and his new bride were living beside a mountain lake in, as she puts it, "splendid isolation." His studio was a spartan little hut on the mountainside above the house. He got up at six, threw on "his oldest rags," ordered his breakfast sent up, and went immediately to work. Breakfast, when it arrived, was coffee, bread, and preserves. He worked every day until noon, went for a swim, had lunch at one, and then went with Alma on a long walk, sometimes resting to note down musical ideas. He worked with the obsessive intensity he brought to all his professional life, and brooked no interruption of any kind. (Men were men in those days!) Alma copied out the score and offered suggestions. (After hearing an initial rehearsal of the first movement back in Vienna she was so distressed by the enormous amount of percussion that Mahler crossed much of it out (Hail to thee, 0 Alma Mahler!) The work was first publicly performed by the Gurzenich Orchestra in Cologne on October 18, 1904. Mahler had strong misgivings about how the audience might take it. In the event, there were not many hisses--but there was not much applause either. Bruno Walter, who was there, said that he was frankly disappointed in the piece.

So was Mahler. The Fifth was something new for him. In the first place it was his first symphony that did not involve song. (To be sure, No. 1 has no vocal part, but it draws from Mahler's own songs for some of its themes.) In the second Mahler was aware that the old tonal-harmonic concept that had underlain the symphony since its inception was breaking down: he was in a no-man's land between the chromaticism of Wagner and the atonality of Schoenberg. The approach he took was a new one to counterpoint (culminating in the triple fugue of the final movement). But the orchestration got in the way of the contrapuntal effects. As a result, Mahler tinkered with it until he finally re-orchestrated the whole piece in 1911--the year he succumbed at fifty-one to pneumonia, heart disease, and exhaustion. The Fifth is regarded by many as the first element of a vast trilogy that includes the other two middle-period instrumental sym­phonies, the Sixth and Seventh.

At the end of his life Mahler was working on a tenth symphony. Though it has cleverly been "reconstructed" by Deryck Cooke, and recorded in his version, what is played here is the opening Adagio, completed in full score by the composer.

Many people will recall conductor Kyril Kondrashin as the fellow who accompanied Van Cliburn in his Moscow triumph twenty years ago, though others will know him from his innumerable fine recordings. If you ask What have Russians to do with Mahler? You might recall that he was a powerful influence on Shostakovitch.




Symphonies No. 5 and 10 (Adagio)

Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra

Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Conductor (No. 10)

Kirill Kondrashin, Conductor (No. 5)

Mahler has been described as the last great Austrian symphonist--for him the symphonic form was the natural medium for the realization of his musical id as.

The Fifth Symphony was composed during 1901-02, and repres nts a new approach to the symphonic form. Mahler's earlier symphonies were largely derived from his songs, or inspired by literary texts. The Fifth Symphony was conceived in purely or h tral terms, and d,, pite its length, it still retains the Austrian character of Mahler's earlier works in the use of dance rhythms, allusions to folk songs (without actually quoting any), rich, beautiful orchestration, and gorgeous melodies.

Although Mahler conceived his Tenth Symphony as a work in five movements, only one movement, a long adagio, was completed. The other movements, although completely sketched out, were never fully orchestrated by the composer. As the companion piece to the Fifth symphony, we are offering Mahler's original version of the adagio of the Tenth. A beautiful, moving work it is, too.

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